Nine-Year-Old Wins Lone Star College Calculus Contest
Boy Has Been Studying College-Level Math since Age 8
CONROE, Texas (AP) — When 9-year-old Eric Comstock arrived for Lone Star College’s annual calculus contest recently, Professor Benjamin Gregersen assumed he was the child of one of the contestants.
It was not until his mother, Jocelyn, pulled out the boy’s Lone Star student identification that it became clear the lanky boy with round rimless glasses was not there to watch.
Eric enrolled in a trigonometry class at Lone Star Montgomery’s campus last fall at age 8. This semester he took Calculus 1 and was one of only six in the class of 37 students to earn an “A.”
Perhaps it should have been no surprise then when he was one of some 40 contestants who showed up to compete for the $100 prize in Lone Star’s annual system-wide calculus competition.
When it was over, the shy boy with the thin braid in back was the last one standing.
His calculus professor, Jeffrey Groah, who came to watch, recalled an increasingly confident Eric swinging his legs as he called out, “Got it!” each time he solved the problem flashed by the projector. Groah said he thought the older students were a bit intimidated by the youngster’s quickness.
“Some people like to think that as his parents, we are pushing him. But he’s really pulling us,” said his mother, who holds a master’s degree in math.
“These children want to know ‘how’ and ‘why,’ since ‘just because’ isn’t enough,” said Melissa Reed, spokeswoman for the Davidson Institute for Talent Development in Reno, Nev. The institute recently admitted Eric into its nationwide “Young Scholar” program for the profoundly gifted.
The first hint of Eric’s astounding abilities came when he was 2, his parents said. They had taken him to another toddler’s birthday party where he amazed the adults by pointing to a table holding the birthday cake and calling it an “okagon” because it was eightsided.
At 3, his parents thought about enrolling him in a special private school.
“But he really wasn’t a fit because when we visited the school’s carnival, they asked us if he was familiar with adding one to 12 like his classmates were then doing,” said his father, Eric Comstock, who works as a computer programmer. By that point, young Eric already was multiplying numbers.
In the end, following a short stint in a Montessori school, his mother opted to mostly homeschool her son.
By 4½, he not only was excelling at math and reading, but was dabbling in chemistry. He memorized most of the periodic table that year, Jocelyn Comstock said.
To demonstrate how he still recalled those elements at age 9, Eric began reciting them rapid fire until he reached zirconium.
Lone Star officials say Eric has tested at the college level in chemistry, English and math.
Math is probably his favorite subject, he said.
“I do like numbers, because I’m good at them. I like playing around with them,” he said. “You can take them into infinity. I like infinite complexity.”
While his peers may be challenged by fractions, decimals and division, Eric relishes computing derivatives in calculus, likes building molecule models and snuggling with his stuffed dolphin. He also enjoys fantasy stories about dragons with his father, but can turn around and delight in reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.”
“He has cycles of intense intellectual activity when he can’t get enough stimulation. Then he crashes for a while,” his mother said. Eric has filled journals full of equations, formulas, diagrams and drawings, some humorous, most involving math and science topics that interest him.
Groah, his calculus teacher, said Eric’s head is “swimming with ideas.”
He described the boy coming to his office, using a marker to illustrate his ideas on a dry erase board.
“Some of the topics were ones normally introduced to students well after calculus,” Groah said. His ideas were not perfectly formed and usually required refining, but Eric was “like an Arabian horse, always ready to run. If just left in a stall, he would wither.”
Nonetheless, sitting still in a college class can be difficult for one so young.
To keep Eric stimulated, his parents have sought out mentors, such as Alex Filippenko, an astronomy professor at the University of California Berkeley, who has been featured on the History Channel’s “The Universe.”
When Eric was 5, he and his family visited Filippenko and his family for a week.
“Your son is truly amazing. His mind is off the scale,” Filippenko wrote afterward.
During one of his lectures, Filippenko had introduced Eric to his students and remarked on questions the boy had posed about such things as the core of a super massive black hole for which nobody yet has any answers.
For now, the plan is for Eric to continue taking courses at Lone Star, such as chemistry and Calculus 2, and then reevaluate in a few years.
Noting that famed theoretical physicists Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman did not learn calculus until they were in their teens, Groah said it is hard to know what a 9-year-old like Eric someday could accomplish.
“He thinks he might like to do research for curing diseases,” his mother said.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com